Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis


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Out of the Silent Planet, published in 1938, is the first novel by C. S. Lewis and is the first book in his Space Trilogy. The novel follows Dr. Elwin Ransom's journey through Mars. Rather than focusing on scientific innovation, Lewis uses science fiction as a means of expressing his Christian ideals to a non-Christian audience.





About the Author



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C. S. Lewis (image source: Awakening Grace)
Clive Staples Lewis, commonly referred to as C. S. Lewis and known by family and friends as "Jack," was a novelist, academic scholar, theologian, and Christian apologist. Born in Belfast, Ireland on Nov. 29, 1898 to Albert James Lewis and Florence Augusta Lewis, Jack loved to read as a child. In fact, many of his earliest memories come from stories rather than real life, such as a fear of insects he developed after his elder brother constantly taunted Jack with an insect-themed pop-up book. For the rest of his life, Jack would retain this fear (White, 10).

Lewis experienced a tragic loss in 1908, at the age of 9, when his mother died of cancer. Comparatively, another author, J. R. R. Tolkien, also lost his mother in early childhood. It is only fitting that these two authors with such similar childhoods should grow to become close friends later in life (White, 17-19). Lewis died on Nov. 22, 1963.

Lewis was a professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge universities and would write more than 30 books in his lifetime. Some of his most famous works include his Space Series, which consists of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1931, Lewis converted to Christianity after a divine experience in which he felt like he was encased in a suit and the only way to break out was to accept God. Since then, Lewis has developed a more pantheist view of God in which He is more like Nature than how the Bible depicts Him (White, 145). All of Lewis's novels reflect this religious outlook.

Plot Summary


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The cover of the book (image source: Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Central)

Out of the Silent Planet centers around Dr. Ransom, a professor at Cambridge University who is on a hiking trip at the beginning of the book. Though he is unable to find lodging for the night, Ransom eventually comes across a small cottage, whose owner asks him to find her son, Harry, who works at the estate of Professor Weston. Ransom finds out that Weston is hosting a man named Mr. Devine, a former classmate of Ransom whom he disliked.

Shortly after he arrives, Ransom is drugged and taken by Weston and Devine aboard a spaceship heading to Mars, or Malacandra as the martians (Malacandrans) call it. Weston and Devine had previously journeyed to Malacandra and discovered that gold is in abundance there. This time, they are bringing Ransom as a sacrifice to please the native people, or seroni. While Devine's intentions are strictly monetary, Weston wants to propagate the human race throughout the entire universe by colonizing planets and leaving them when they become uninhabitable.

Ransom overhears their plan and manages to escape. While he is wandering the planet, Ransom encounters another Malacandran race called the hrossa. He befriends one named Hyoi and lives in their village and learns their culture and traditions. While the hrossa would be considered nomadic and technologically backward by our standards, they are master poets. Later, Ransom is summoned by an invisible creature called an eldil to meet with the Oyarsa, the eldil who rules Malacandra.

When Ransom finally agrees to go seek out the Oyarsa, he meets a sorn along the way named Augray. Ransom finds that the seroni are a peaceful and intellectual race and Augray carries Ransom on his shoulder to the Oyarsa. Also along the way, Ransom encounters the third race of Malacandra, the pfifltriggi. While his encounter with them is short, he learns that they are the expert craftsmen of Malacandra.

When Ransom finally meets the Oyarsa, It explains that there are ruling eldil (Oyeresu) for every planet, and that the Oyarsa of Earth, called Thulcandra ("The Silent Planet") by the Malacandrans, is corrupt and has been restricted to Thulcandra by Maleldil, the ruler of the universe. This explains why the human race has committed so many evils.

After its conversation with Ransom, the Oyarsa sends the three humans back to Earth.

Historical Context and Critical Reception



Lewis's friend and fellow author, J. R. R. Tolkein, after whom Lewis claims to have modeled Dr. Ransom (White, 86), inspired Lewis to write Out of the Silent Planet following a conversation about their dissatisfaction with the fantasy literature of the late 1930s. They decided that in order to remedy the situation, they would each have to write their own novels. After initially considering collaborating on a story, the two decided that it would be better if they worked separately; Lewis would write a story about space travel and Tolkein would write one about time travel. Lewis kept his end of the bargain and wrote Out of the Silent Planet, while Tolkein only finished a set of notes and an outline for his would be time travel novel, The Lost Road (White, 112-113).

Out of the Silent Planet is Lewis's first novel and was published in the wake of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898), which is one of the first and arguably one of the most influential science fiction novels to ever be written. Lewis himself even admits to Wells's influence on him in an opening note, saying that some aspects of his story may resemble that of The War of the Worlds and that he appreciates what Wells has done in terms of laying the foundation for science fiction novels of this type. In addition to The War of the Worlds, Lewis cites David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, another space-time story in which the author adds a spiritual aspect, to be a major influence for Lewis's novel (White, 115). Due to the legacy of Wells, Out of the Silent Planet garnered much comparison to The War of the Worlds. In general, Lewis's audience found Wells's narrative to be more entertaining with its more vivid and dramatic descriptions of other-worldly phenomena.

While Out of the Silent Planet did not enjoy massive sales until after Lewis gained international fame in the 1940s, it did receive over fifty reviews within a year of its publication, most of them being positive (White, 115-116). In one of the novel's few negative reviews, John Lane of The Times Literary Supplement said that the novel "lacked too much of Mr. Wells's special gift for dramatic sharpening" (Lane, 625). Lane also noted that while the novel started out brilliantly with Ransom's abduction, it begins to drag once Ransom arrives on Malacandra. Lane suspects "the author's imaginative wind to be outrun by his ambition" (Lane, 625). Ultimately, Lewis's spiritual "ambition" is what sets his novel apart from Wells's. While The War of the Worlds has a bigger focus on science, the science fiction setting in Out of the Silent Planet merely serves as a vehicle for Lewis to present his Christian ideas to the average layperson (see Original Interpretation).

Themes



As noted in the author information, Lewis's work reflects his views on Christianity. However, rather than using a formal argument to support his points, he uses narrative, imagery, and poetic creation (Lake, 1996). According to Charles Moorman, C. S. Lewis has always been viewed as an "apostle to the skeptics" (Moorman, 401), meaning that his work was meant to be read and interpreted by skeptical laymen. Moorman contends that Lewis wants to draw mankind away from secularism and into the religious world. In order to do this, Lewis himself writes a science fiction novel: Out of the Silent Planet. His challenge was to translate the basic Christian tenets into "pseudo-scientific and mythical terms" (Moorman, 401), without losing the message he is working with. Out of the Silent Planet is the first example of such ideas at work. In fact, many of the characters in the book can be seen as direct parallels to Biblical figures.

The Eldila, an invisible force on Malacandra, represent Angels. The Oyarsa represent more powerful angels, or archangels. The Oyarsa of Thulcandra obviously represents Satan, or Lucifer, as he has fallen from grace and is confined to Earth. Maledil, the ruler of the universe, is also an obvious parallel, God. Lewis also takes the image of outer space and connects it with the concept of Heaven when he describes the Oyarsa as being omnipresent,with the ability to preside over any planet they choose.

Images of harmony and dissonance are also central to the novel. As Ransom learns more about Malacandra, he begins to see how the three races of Malacandra (seroni, hrossa, and pfifltriggi) live in harmony and understand each others' strengths and weaknesses. While the Malacandrans live in harmony without any one race trying to subordinate another, Ransom sees the exact opposite situation on earth, where everyone is self-serving and the race as a whole sees only itself as worth perpetuating (Schwartz, 524). On Malacandra, the term hnau is used to describe rational beings, which include the three aforementioned races. Using a collective term to refer to the Malacandrans and all other rational creatures reinforces the unity shared by the Malacandrans, something which the humans lack.

Out of the Silent Planet can also be viewed as a criticism of racist expansionism (Lake, 1996). Weston, who wanted to perpetuate the human race by moving from planet to planet, saw the humans as superior to all other beings, and thus as possessing the right to conquer planets and leave them as they die. Also, seeing as none of the races in the book look like humans, Weston and Devine make rash assumptions, such as the fact that the sorns are ignorant "primitives" or "brutes" (Schwartz, 523) when in actuality, they are the most learned race on Malacandra.

Original Interpretation



Rather than writing science fiction to explore technology, Lewis uses Out of the Silent Planet to present Christianity and Christian views to those who might not otherwise be exposed to such ideals. While it is not a direct retelling of the Bible, Out of the Silent Planet criticizes human folly and presents the Kingdom of God as a utopia. Earth (Thulcandra or "The Silent Planet") is depicted as corrupt while Malacandra is portrayed as an idyllic land untouched by evil.

Central to the novel is the battle between good and evil. On Malacandra, the seroni, hrossa, and pfifltriggi all live in harmony and work together based on their strengths. The seroni are known for their intellectualism and scholarly studies, the hrossa, whose language is adopted as the universal language of Malacandra, are renowned poets, and the pfifltriggi are skilled artisans and craftsmen. Each race recognizes its own strengths as well as those of the other races and is willing to work for another race as well as to ask them for help. This sense of community comes from the idea of hnau. The races of Malacandra give freely to each other in times of need because they are all hnau and thus share a common awareness of the world. When Ransom asks Hyoi if the hrossa have conflicts with the seroni or pfifltriggi over food or other material possessions, Hyoi responds by saying that any hnau would give another hnau food if they truly needed it, and that he trusts Maleldil to ensure that there will always be enough food being grown (Lewis, 72). As shown by this example and throughout the entire novel, the "good" side is constantly associated with a strong sense of community watched over by God.

Lewis makes it clear to the reader which side should be favored, as everything evil (mostly things from Earth) is described as "bent" by the Malacandrans, implying that anything "bent" has strayed from the straight (good) path, which to Lewis is the path of God. Humanity is represented by Devine and Weston, who are clearly "bent" as they violently intrude upon the good Malacandrans. According to Hyoi, no hnau lives a bent life (Lewis, 73), meaning that humans are not to be considered rational beings when compared to the other species of the universe. Later in the novel, Devine and Weston prove their savageness by killing Hyoi while looking for Ransom. According to the hrossa, "one does not kill hnau, only Oyarsa does that" (Lewis, 82). Thus, the humans have proven that they are not hnau and do not belong in the realm of God.

If humans and Malacandrans were completely separate morally, then Lewis would have failed as an "apostle to the skeptics." In the context of a Christian allegory, Ransom, who is a human, represents the common man who discovers God and is thus delivered from evil by the end of the novel. In the beginning, Ransom is not much different from Weston and Devine. When he was forced to journey with them to Malacandra, Ransom had the same fearful assumptions that the native people were brutal savages. What sets Ransom apart from the other two humans is his willingness to negotiate and learn. When he first meets Hyoi, Ransom is terrified. However, he tries communicating with the hross and eventually figures out that there are intelligent species on Malacandra. After he learns more about Malacandran culture and about hnau, Ransom becomes determined to prove that humans are also hnau. It can thus be interpreted that Ransom has embarked on a spiritual journey of self-discovery to make himself presentable before God.

Ransom's metaphorical journey becomes a physical journey as the Oyarsa requests an audience with him. At first, Ransom is reluctant to go, but Weston and Devine's murder of Hyoi eventually convinces Ransom to visit the Oyarsa. Most likely, seeing the moral stupor that his race is in made Ransom further want to prove that humans as a whole are better than Weston and Devine have shown. When Ransom finally meets with the Oyarsa, it tells him that it also wanted to see Weston and Devine, but since only Ransom came willingly, the Oyarsa regarded him as morally superior to the other two humans and even offers to let him stay on Malacandra. This encounter represents the notion that God wants to help everyone, but only those who seek Him out are rewarded. This underlying message is especially powerful to the so called "skeptics" whom Lewis is trying to convince to seek out God.

Sources


1. Lake, David. “C.S. Lewis: Overview.” St. James Guide for Science Fiction Writers. New York: St. James Press, 1996.

2. Lane, John. "Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis." The New York Times 1 Oct. 1938: 625.

3. Lewis, C. S. Out of the Silent Planet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

4. Moorman, Charles. “Space Ship and Grail: The Myths of C. S. Lewis .” Contemporary Literary Criticism 14 (1980): 401-405.

5. Schwartz, Sanford. “Cosmic anthropology: race and reason in Out of the silent planet.” Christianity and Literature 52.4 (2003).

6. White, Michael. C. S. Lewis: A Life. New York: Carol & Graf Publishers, 2004.